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Dunkirk – movie review

James D’Arcy and Kenneth Branagh in Dunkirk.

Dunkirk strikes home with minimal dialogue and maximum tension. 

British soldiers drift slowly down a village street. Leaflets bearing the words “We surround you” fall like snow. Then, a crack of rifles. Most of the squad go down. Save one, a lad pointedly named Tommy (Fionn Whitehead). He rushes past a French army barricade – a mere wall of sandbags to halt the Nazi advance – and out onto the beach at Dunkirk. There, more than 300,000 members of the British Expeditionary Force are stranded, arranged in regimental single file, running like rivulets down to the sea.

Beyond that ocean is England. You can just make it out through the haze: home. Throughout Dunkirk’s pulsating, teeth-clenching duration, its characters will have home in their grasp, only to have it wrenched away again. All the while, the clock ticks.

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Christopher Nolan’s films are unified by their sense of time – the longing it provokes or the pressure of having so little left. Memento was about rediscovered time; Inception slowed it down to a crawl; Interstellar expanded minutes into years.

Dunkirk, in turn, is spread across three times and places: we spend a week on the beach with Tommy, his comrades and Kenneth Branagh’s steely naval commander. There are long periods of cold and boredom punctuated by the frenzied rush to board rescue ships continuously strafed by the Luftwaffe.

Then, there is a day with a soft-spoken weekend sailor (Mark Rylance) as he pilots his launch across the English Channel as part of the brave civilian armada. And there is one hour in the air with Tom Hardy’s coolly heroic RAF pilot, the fuel tank in his Spitfire trickling to empty. Tick tock.

Each strand of time intersects with the others, often at moments of utmost peril. And that peril is delivered with a defiantly unnerving stillness. Nolan’s action is not a chaotic swirl of blurred images but a sequence of artfully composed shots, further heightened by the unearthly glissandos of Hans Zimmer’s score.

The director is so reliant on these elegant and tension-filled movements that there is barely a need for dialogue. Exchanges are kept to a minimum. “The tide is turning,” one officer says. “How can you tell?” comes the reply. “Because the bodies are coming back.”

And always there’s a feeling of accelerating towards a climax that could have so easily been tragic, yet we know will be triumphant.

Dunkirk is remarkable – a work of serious ambition and surging, stressed energy. But the film’s true genius is in its final note. The evacuation of Dunkirk, after all, was the deliverance of British dignity, a redemption enshrined by Winston Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches” speech. By closing on that defiant peroration, Dunkirk emerges from the darkest hour into the light.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

This article was first published in the July 29, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.